India: Public Interest Litigation: A New Horizon

Last Updated: 5 November 2013
Article by Anjali Srivastava

Most Read Contributor in India, September 2016

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent justice' but there must never be a time we fail to protest": Elie Wilsel

Justice is an idea that affirms social equality against any kind of discrimination or abuse out of social class or any other reason. It is a concept involving fair, moral and impartial treatment of all people who faces injustice in some or the other way. Public Interest Litigation commonly known as PIL is a tool in the form of legal action initiated in a Court of Law regarding a matter which concerns public interest.

PIL is not a very old concept it is a new stream in field of dispute resolution. Its aim to transform the society and paves the way for the elimination of various social injustices such as sexual harassment, environmental pollutions, monetary frauds and other issues etc.


Public Interest Litigation is not defined in any statute or act yet it is a well founded concept. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large.

In Black's Law Dictionary: Public Interest Litigation means a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which public or class or class of community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal right or liabilities are affected.

PIL can be broadly defined as litigation in the interest of public in general. PIL is the power given to the public by courts through judicial activism. Any person who believes that injustice being done to the society at large can approach the court for judicial remedy.


PIL in India is more or less an improved version of PIL filed in USA. Justice P. N. Bhagwati and Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer were among the first judges to admit PILs in court. In 1979 this case Hussaianra khatoon vs. State of Bihar (1979) which was filed through an Advocate, based on the newspaper article published in Indian Express of the hardship of under trial prisoners of Bihar prison and a judgment was pronounced by then Justice PN Bhagwati recognized the right of speedy trial and justice. This case opened a window of thought and thereafter Courts were flooded with number of cases on different issues. Before PIL, the locus standi to file the case only belonged to the person whose right was infringed but by the introduction of PIL the locus standi is given to person acting bonafide and having sufficient interest in the proceeding of PIL can approach the court to wipe out violation of fundamental rights or any other injustice. In 1981 Justice P. N. Bhagwati in .S. P. Gupta v. Union of India, articulated the concept of PIL which are as follows, "Where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of violation of any constitutional or legal right or any burden is imposed in contravention of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened and such person or determinate class of persons by reasons of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, any member of public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in case any breach of fundamental rights of such persons or determinate class of persons, in this court under Article 32 seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or legal injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons."M C Mehta is a very renowned name in the field of PIL his contribution in this field especially in environment is remarkable which helped in the protection of India natural and cultural treasures like Ganga (MC Mehta vs. Union of India) and Taj Mahal. (M.C. Mehta (Taj Trapezium Matter) v. Union of India and Ors.) He also advocated for alternate energy in transport system and his contribution in curbing child labour is also commendable.


There are many examples of frivolous Public interest litigation In Kalyaneshwari vs Union of India, the court cited the misuse of public-interest litigation "The Courts, while exercising jurisdiction and deciding a public interest litigation, has to take great care, primarily, for the reason that wide jurisdiction should not become a source of abuse of process of law by disgruntled litigant. Such careful exercise is also necessary to ensure that the litigation is genuine, not motivated by extraneous considerations and imposes an obligation upon the litigant to disclose true facts and approach the Court with clean hands. Thus, it is imperative that the petitions, which are bona fide and in public interest alone, be entertained in this category. Abuse of process of law is essentially opposed to any public interest. One, who abuses the process of law, cannot be said to serve any public interest, much less, a larger public interest. A petition which lacks bona fide and is intended to settle business rivalry or is aimed at taking over of a company or augmenting the business of another interested company at the cost of closing business of other units in the garb of PIL would be nothing but abuse of the process of law".

The Supreme Court as issued a set of guidelines for entertaining PIL in the country:-

(Extract of guidelines based on Full Court decision dated 1.12.1988 and subsequent modifications). No petition involving individual/ personal matter shall be entertained as a PIL matter except as indicated hereinafter.

Letter-petitions falling under the following categories alone will ordinarily be entertained as Public Interest Litigation:-

1. Bonded Labour matters.

2. Neglected Children.

3. Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of casual workers and complaints of violation of Labour Laws (except in individual cases).

4. Petitions from jails complaining of harassment, for (pre-mature release)* and seeking release after having completed 14 years in jail, death in jail, transfer, release on personal bond, speedy trial as a fundamental right.

5. Petitions against police for refusing to register a case, harassment by police and death in police custody.

6. Petitions against atrocities on women, in particular harassment of bride, bride-burning, rape, murder, kidnapping etc.

7. Petitions complaining of harassment or torture of villagers by co- villagers or by police from persons belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and economically backward classes.

8. Petitions pertaining to environmental pollution, disturbance of ecological balance, drugs, food adulteration, maintenance of heritage and culture, antiques, forest and wild life and other matters of public importance.

9. Petitions from riot -victims.

10. Family Pension.

Cases falling under the following categories will not be entertained as Public Interest Litigation and these may be returned to the petitioners or filed in the PIL Cell, as the case may be:

1. Landlord-Tenant matters.

2. Service matter and those pertaining to Pension and Gratuity.

3. Complaints against Central/ State Government Departments and Local Bodies except those relating to item Nos. (1) to (10) above.

4. Admission to medical and other educational institution.

5. Petitions for early hearing of cases pending in High Courts and Subordinate Courts.

One should follow these guidelines before filing public interest litigation in strict sense before filing frivolous PIL.


Public interest litigation is a revolutionary stream which helps the common man to reach the remedy which is beneficial for public at large which was not earlier available to them even before actual damage is done. Public interest litigation has opened the new window of thought. We should thank our judiciary who have coined this new concept which is very useful for public at large because there are many examples present with us which shows that it really helped the common person in field of pollution, environment, bonded labour, scams corruption etc . By filing the Public Interest Litigation one can assure the justice to the aggrieved people.

"The positive energy has to flow from all nations to each other. Only then, we can protect; we can preserve; we can think; we can be the same citizens. We can be a peaceful citizen of the world.":-From the Film The World is On Fire.


1. AIR1979SC1360

2. AIR 1982 SC 149.

3. [1988] 2 S.C.R. 530

4. AIR1997SC734

5. (2011)3SCC287

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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